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Skin Cancer Detection Apps: Are They Reliable?

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First Posted: Jan 24, 2013 10:01 AM EST

The well-known Apple iPhone slogan "There's an app for that" has led smartphone users to believe that the abilities of these applications are endless.  And another convenience just made it to the list - dermatology apps.  These so-called skin cancer detection apps claim they will save users a trip to the doctor by telling them whether or not to be worried about that funny-looking spot on their skin.

All they have to do is take a photo of the lesion and the app will promptly generate a diagnosis. It sounds simple enough, but before you trust this one, you should know a few things.

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First, the Food and Drug Administration is currently attempting keep tabs on these apps since Congress passed the FDA Safety and Innovation Act in 2012.

According to ABC News, "The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has responded to the explosion of health-related smartphone apps and announced in July 2011 plans to regulate smartphone apps that paired with medical devices the agency already regulates, such as cardiac monitors and radiologic imaging devices. In 2012, Congress passed the FDA Safety and Innovation Act, allowing the FDA to regulate some medical apps on smartphones. But which apps will come under this regulation and which will not remains unclear."

Also, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center recently tested the accuracy of four of these apps, and according to the Journal of the American Medical Association-Dermatology, the best of the programs only correctly identified melanoma (the worst form of skin cancer) under 30 percent of the time.

These apps also misdiagnosed about half of the benign lesions as cancerous. The findings were published January 16, 2013 in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Dermatology.

And finally, in an interview with ABC News, Dr. Darrell Rigel, clinical professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center stressed the potential problem with this unreliable method: "It is very concerning that these apps are used for diagnosis by patients, as it could lead to delay in diagnosis of melanoma, the cancer which is perhaps the most critical in early diagnosis being important for survival."

So, go ahead and play around with the app if you are remotely interested in how it works. However, as old-fashioned as it sounds, any cause for concern when it comes to one's health should warrant a trip to a doctor, in this case, a dermatologist - just to be safe.

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